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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, June 30, 2006

Say Hey, was Tom Terrific?

So where have all those good sports nicknames of the past gone? Dave Anderson raised the issue in a New York Times column today. You know, The Babe, Shoeless Joe and The Yankee Clipper in baseball, The Galloping Ghost and Sweetness in football, Magic, Clyde and Doctor J in basketball. They brought a colorful flair to their sports. And there was never a need for a first or last name.

I'm afraid the answer reflects on how seriously we take names -- especially first names -- today and the cultural diversity of our athletes today. A bit of political correctness also lurks. Few people attach diminutives like Pee Wee or nicknames like Bud to their children anymore. You can't upset anyone by latching onto a first name like Derek or Pedro or Mariano. And with the rising number of Latino baseball players and foreign-born basketball players, any nickname just might strike the wrong cultural chord.

But all is not lost. Tiger is still Tiger. And thanks to two Latino players with style, we can cheer or boo El Duque and Big Papi. Too bad there aren't more of them.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The double-dipper club

Of all the ethical reforms the Press and good-government groups have been advocating the past three years, dual officeholding seems the easiest to address. The conflict of interest inherent in holding more than one elected office is clear. A new report by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, "One to a Customer," makes an excellent case against dual officeholding.

Take a legislator who is also a mayor. The best interests of people that legislator represents may be at odds at times with the best interests of the town he leads. You just can't wear two hats. It's hard to believe they have the time to do it.

These double-dippers disagree. They insist they can handle both jobs. And if they don't do them well, their constituents will vote them out, they say. That assumes their district or town is competitive. Too often, these politicians are so entrenched nobody dares to challenge them. Dual officeholders thus block the way for aspiring public officials.

So why hasn't dual elective officeholding been banned? Twenty of the 120 legislators are the problem, so they're not likely to do anything to interrupt the status quo. They can talk all they want about high ethical standards, but until they go the right thing - especially when it's so obvious - it's just talk.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The budget scramble

Here we are only three days before the deadline for the Legislature to craft a new state budget that the governor feels he can sign. Are the parties close? Of course not. This is New Jersey, where the people in Trenton do precious little to earn the public's respect but do offer all sorts of fodder for late-night comedy routines.

One thing you can expect: It'll be a late night for the legislators Friday and probably well into Saturday as they "stop the clock'' to work on the budget without violating the state constitution's July 1 mandate. A photo of lawmakers yawning or snoozing, maybe even with pillow at hand, is a sure-shot.

Most of the decisions and horse-trading will be made at the last moment. Is this any way to run a state that's a $30 billion corporation and serves 8 million people? Gov. Corzine had to know what he was getting into when he traded his U.S. Senate seat for the governor's office. Or did he?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Calling for the right thing

What ever happened to telephone courtesy? It's alive and well in some places -- and I hope the habit spreads.

I'm still amazed at how some people profusely thank you when you return their call. Isn't that what you're supposed to do when someone leaves a phone message? Of course, too many voice mailers speak so quickly that you can't call them back because their number is so garbled -- if they leave a number at all.

It's reassuring when you call a business office or residence and the person taking your message actually cares about the call. Just today, the person on the other end of the line took down my fax and phone numbers plus e-mail address -- and repeated them back to me. That's professionalism. But why is that the exception rather than the rule?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Vetoing pork

So the House of Representatives has voted to give the president the authority to line-item veto spending plans buried in larger bills that the president finds wasteful. After months of the White House exerting executive authority over most everything and neutering Congress in its wake, we finally have a public vote on something that, yes, further expands the president's authority. In this regard, the president leads a charmed life.

Of course, this vote would have been unnecessary if Congress had the guts to ban the types of spending presidents are apt to veto: those pork barrel projects most recently dubbed "earmarks.'' There's no reason for a "bridge to nowhere'' in Alaska or other infamous special-interest projects found on page 129 of 130-page bills. They serve little purpose other than to make members of Congress popular in their home districts. If something is worthy of federal funds, let it stand on its own.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Class of 2006 brain drain

The accomplishments of the students profiled in the annual Academic Leaders section of our Community supplement Wednesday can match those of high school graduates anywhere. They've given to their communities as well as to their schools. They've set the bar high in their academic life and plan to push it higher in college as they pursue engineering, medicine, international relations, etc.

But New Jersey college recruiters should be concerned that only 15 of the 59 students profiled - 25.4 percent - will attend college in state. More of these high achievers are going to Penn, MIT, Virginia, Brown, NYU, Lafayette and other top-notch colleges than are going to Rutgers. The College of New Jersey did the best job by luring five of these top students. Rutgers got only two.

This out-migration of New Jersey students is nothing new. Not only are these bright minds not learning in state, but they're not likely to return here. Our economy and scientific communities will be the losers. Every state college and university has to study its admissions process to determine what they could have done better to keep the "best and brightest'' where they belong, in New Jersey.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Soccer 101

I couldn't resist, so I tuned into the USA-Italy World Cup match Saturday. I was probably not the only viewer who hasn't watched a soccer match in a long time, if ever. NBC should know that and make sure its commentators help keep novice viewers watching.

Sports announcers shouldn't talk down to their audience. But in this case, key terms that come up with key plays should be described. How was the play offside? What prompted the yellow or red card? Why a corner kick rather than any other kind of kick? Not with every decisive play, but take the time (a TV show-and-tell, if you will) to really inform the viewers. They might come back, even if the USA isn't playing.

Monday, June 19, 2006

No ads, not sad

Sometimes gifts can teach you what's missing in life. Take the DVD - Season 4 of "Law & Order'' - I received for Father's Day. We watched the first two episodes and found them riveting. Why so? No commercial interruptions.

I don't watch much TV and my commercial-free experience reminded me of the reason. I can't get into a show if it's cut into seven- or eight-minute segments. That's why I can't watch TV dramas, not to mention movies.

I realize the ads pay for the show, but with rare exceptions count me out. I'll wait for the DVD.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The cult of celebrity

Tom Cruise has proved once again that any publicity is good publicity. It hasn't been a particularly good year for Cruise, what with the bashing he took for being so dismissive of post-partum depression, his couch-hopping on Oprah's show and his latest "Mission: Impossible'' not a real blockbuster. (Then again, there was his romance and baby with Katie Holmes.) All that created a buzz, which combined with his earnings - $67 million - boosted him to the top of Forbes Magazine's Celebrity 100 Power List.''

Even more interesting in Forbes' listing of celebrity money earners is how long-gone stars - or at least their estates - keep doing well. For instance, Elvis Presley's music brought in $52 million and Kurt Cobain's about $50 million. Then there's a different variety of celebrity, Albert Einstein, whose estate took in $20 million. Every sale of those wonderful Baby Einstein toys and videos helps.

What is it about celebrities that keeps magazines writing about them, media outlets reporting on them and bloggers blogging about them?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The turf battle for cable TV

It's not as hot an issue as immigration or Iraq, but our readers sure do take their cable TV options and rates seriously. Verizon's bid to gain a statewide franchise to provide TV service over its fiber-optic lines and the campaign by the cable television industry to block it is not a dull business story to our letter writers and phone callers.

This story strikes a chord because it's all about competition. Residents have bristled for years about their lack of options when it comes to cable TV service. They're stuck with the company that holds their town's franchise. (Oh, there's the satellite dish, but switching is too much work for many viewers.) People like choices and they see the Verizon initiative as providing something they've long wanted. And they fully appreciate what that competition should bring: lower rates.

If their opinions could be extrapolated as a representative sample, it's a slam-dunk for Verizon. The cable TV providers are perceived as members of a self-serving monopoly that keeps hiking their rates. It'll be interesting to see how they react should Verizon win permission to go everywhere.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

No sporting life

It's almost halfway through June, the temperature is expected to hit 80 degrees in New Jersey today and they're still playing pro hockey. (It might end tonight in, of all places, Raleigh, N.C.) What a yawn!

That's not all. It's mid-June and they're still playing pro basketball. Unless you live in Dallas or Miami or have strong feelings about Coach Pat Riley, it's another yawn.

Aha, something special is going on. The world is riveted to one of the sporting world's great spectacles, the World Cup. In our many ethnic communities, what the world calls football and we call soccer is the only news these days. But for most of the rest of us - and despite the huge numbers of soccer-playing youngsters - it is yet another big yawn.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Profiled at the Tonys

I like musical theater, be it Broadway, regional, even college and high school productions. So, of course I watched the Tony Awards show Sunday night. It was good to see "Jersey Boys'' win big for its portrayal of the Four Seasons, a Jersey group from my generation. It's also about time New Jersey got some good publicity.

While I really enjoyed the show's clips of stars long ago gone (Groucho teasing a young Leslie Uggams and never giving her the award is a classic), I soon realized the advertisers had profiled me. Yes, I'm in that 45-and-older category. But does every ad have to be a drug for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleeping problems or whatever ails boomers and beyond, or long-term care insurance, or a hair product, with a new car or two mixed in for variety?

I don't watch much TV and I'm probably healthier for it. Watching all these pharmaceutical ads can make one sick. Does anyone else out there in the blogosphere feel the same way?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Success without diplomas

The recent story about the success in college of people who never completed high school raises important questions about the role of high schools. For years, young people have been told they can't get anywhere in life without a high school diploma or the GED equivalency. But maybe that's not so, if the trend detailed in the New York Times article - 400,000 students without a high school diploma attend college - takes hold and grows.

If people can drop out of high school and not worry about the consequences, high schools become irrelevant. Educators should take a hard look at their curricula to make sure they serve the students' academic and social growth. Then there's the placement and financial aid for these college-without-high-school students. Should they be able to compete for valuable seats in college classrooms and scarce grants and tuition aid with more traditional students?

All this assumes a college degree means something. A better educated worker supposedly contributes to a better work force. But is it the employee's credentials or his talent and work ethic that really makes a difference?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Students' voices clear

Faithful readers of Student Voices, the Press' monthly opinion page for youngsters in grades 7-12, know how well these teenagers put their thoughts on paper, whether in essays or cartoons. But last night's reception held for the winners, hosted by program sponsor Brookdale Community College, verified what their writing and drawing strongly indicated: These are kids to make any parent proud.

They are bright, polite, gracious and composed. They're quick with applause for their colleagues. Whether their classmates won one certificate or nine, their school pride was obvious. And when we asked the four finalists to read their essays, without much warning, they delivered recitations that commanded rapt attention. The two heart-tugging essays brought a tear or two - a tribute to the writers and their ability to express it so well in person, too.

A page reviewing the Student Voices year is scheduled Tuesday, June 13. We also plan an online photo gallery at

Friday, June 02, 2006

The odds on spelling

For those who wonder about the pervasiveness of gambling, consider this: An online site was accepting bets on the Scripps National Spelling Bee this week. The propositions were pretty creative: Would the winner be a girl or a boy? Would the winner be wearing glasses? Would the final word have an "e'' in it?

It's pretty sick when bookies take action on a kids' contest. Maybe it's an unintended consequence of the popularity of the spelling bee: at least three movies, a Broadway show and prime-time TV of the finals. At least it's reality TV that's real.

Oh, as for those questions: The winner was a girl. No, she was not wearing glasses. And the final word did have an ''e'' at the end. Here's another proposition: What are the odds the bookies will do the right thing and refuse to take action on the spelling bee next year?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

'Operation Bid Rig' goes to trial

For of us who love courtroom drama - "Law and Order,'' Court TV, even Judge Judy - the Monmouth County version is under way in Newark. It's the first trial of one of the 11 public officials nabbed last year in the FBI's Operation Bid Rig probe into official corruption in the county.

It has everything TV seems to like: a former elected municipal official who was also a county employee (Raymond O'Grady) on trial for accepted $8,000 in bribes; another former county employee who has already pleaded out to bribery (Anthony Palughi) who introduced O'Grady to undercover FBI agents; and a list of potential witnesses that includes sitting and former Assembly members and two ex-freeholders, among others.

Court sessions are rarely as riveting as seen on TV. But this trial has potential, if the opening arguments are any hint. The government's case "will give an inside look how public office is sold,'' the prosecuting attorney said. "Tony Palughi is a liar,'' O'Grady's lawyer said. Then there are the FBI tapes of O'Grady saying he could "smell'' a ''cop'' from "a mile away,'' according to the indictment.

It should make for some very good reading. Follow it daily in the Press or online.